Writing The Academy

Lots of work within rhetoric and composition has been put into examining the intersection of gender and writing in higher education over the past thirty years. I can’t summarize it here, but instead I’ll steer the mindful and attentive reader(s) toward the work of Gwendolyn Pough, whose published articles I’ve been moving through lately, and leave it at that for now.  The following paragraphs won’t directly engage with any sort of scholarship, but, I don’t know. This is where my mind has been wandering to lately. Anyways, onward.

This coming May, my younger sister will graduate with an M.S. in Public Health from a four-year institution in Rochester, New York.  I like to joke that I’m disappointed I can no longer call myself the most successful of the Richter siblings, as my sister will have the option to include letters after her name after she becomes certified (no small accomplishment!). However, underneath some very meaningful feelings of brotherly and familial pride, which I won’t expound upon here, are a few central points I’d like to draw attention to that come to mind when examining my sister’s journey working (and writing) her way through the academy.

A portrait of this particular writer would not be fair without acknowledging her tremendous growth as an individual, as a student, and as a scholar. She’s talented, humble and strong. She’s quiet, though far less so than even a year ago. She’s a communicator.  She’s direct and concise in speaking. She’s practical, pragmatic, and understands the motivations of others.

She recently penned a grant to improve the public health situation on her campus, which was selected for funding from a vast and competitive field of proposals.

A question is raised in my mind when I think of her, one I’ve been turning over in my head for the past few weeks after a discussion at a recent conference: How do we teach our students to think of themselves as intellectuals? 

Why do we not ask our students, at the conclusion of their undergraduate career, to return back to their past courses, writings, projects, notes, tests, and syllabi, and review for the world the exact components of their education? What did they get from it? What do they carry with them as they walk down those podium steps at graduation?

Why not ask our students to venture a few answers to a second vital question, one that goes a long ways toward answering the first: What skills do I have to offer the world?

This is all brought up from a series of Facetime sessions my sister and I shared in which we edited her CV and a cover letter through Google Docs together. For my sister, I’m not sure there was always a clear answers present in her mind to these percipient questions. It makes me a proud brother, as someone equipped with inside knowledge on her social, economic and educational background, to report that in only the past few weeks I’ve noticed a distinct leap forward in these areas.

In her voice over the mobile device, I heard a tone of engagement and active participation; in her body, an eagerness, a leaning-forward action; in her vision for the respective compositions, a real grasping of her audience, a true sense of exigency and purpose, an impressive eye for style, arrangement, and unity.

The brother within me glowed. The rhetorician within me smiled. But the intellectual within me left the table to ponder. Something had changed in her. Some sense of herself as a professional was present, which hadn’t been on display during previous conversations.  What change has she undergone?

The answer is obvious. She’d always been an intellectual, but only lately has she become aware of it and been able to talk about it.

Suddenly, I find myself admiring her, three years my junior, and realize we’re all only a few conversations away from re-inventing ourselves as humans, as writers, as thinkers.

How might we work toward this with all of our students?

Go Left, Young Writers!

One of my favorite writers, the  Depression-era labor theorist and literary organizer Mike Gold, called upon the young writers of his day to stand boldly against passivity, to dare to speak and make their voices known, to audaciously demand an audience and to demand that audience’s attention.  Gold writes “the best and newest thing a young writer can now do in America, if he has the vigor and the guts, is to go leftward” (1929).  He calls on these writers to voice the concerns of the unregarded, to articulate their experiences in their own vocabularies, to assert their perspectives as not only relevant and valuable, but as prized productions of American identity, working-class struggle, amid changing social systems and circumstances.

Gold’s words remain pertinent even now, when once again the young people, the energized, the empowered, the angry, are forced to lead the transition into a better democracy.

We’re witnessing a 3-4 year period that will be principally defined by the success and the sustainability of the era’s young writers and the antiTrumpian rhetorics they generate and cultivate.

If young writers hope to see any sort of concrete social result in their lifetimes— I’m talking about election wins, bills passed, vocabularies written into law— they must forgo the feel-good “we’re content with slow social change” route the left has taken over the past thirty years.  The progress we’ve made here is astounding— gay marriage, improvement in the lives of working women, lessening the racial gap (this one’s tenuous), etc.  are true achievements.  They haven’t however, addressed income inequality.  The left has abandoned the working poor.  The left has taken too much corporate money, and as Bernie Sanders and his surrogate Cornell West reminded us during last year’s primary, is just as dependent on it as conservatives ever were. The left has embraced neoliberalism, which simultaneously seems to be both dying and thriving.

So, here’s a call on young writers: document your experiences in airports, at rallies, in high-school bathrooms.  Tell the world your story, whether it be through Instagram post, through editorial, through a Tweet, through live video, through newspaper writing, through writing letters.  Assemble yourselves— organize. Summon the vigor.  Summon the guts.

Ceaselessly draw attention to an administration that is morally bankrupt, an administration of false-consciousness that lies to its citizens at press briefings, that spins reality to its own PR interests, that calls attention every day to the sad fact that Americans were fooled last November, fooled decisively and irrevocably, and that the only course of action remaining if we hope to achieve a better society will be provided by the left. Just as we couldn’t keep living in the 1950’s socially, we cannot keep living in the 1980’s economically. Change is visible, but it’s up to the youth to make it tangible.

So, young writers, tackle the issues.  Fight for minimum wage. March for your adjunct professors. Congratulate your regional representative when she pledges to not accept money from pharmaceuticals and fossil fuel corporations. Yell and scream and demand your voice be heard. Make America Great (like it never has been before).

Go left, young writers!

 

Distance Learning Epistemologies

A reading of Elizabeth Losh’s 2014 book The War On Learning uncovers many interesting and provocative challenges on the trend toward “distance learning” popular among many institutions of higher education in recent years.  Modern universities, which Siva Vaidhyanathan has characterized as being remarkably “willing to experiment” within realms of knowledge and content delivery, have in recent years taped lectures from tenured, full-time faculty members and reproduced them online.  Some are posted on the university’s official website, while others are uploaded to YouTube, Twitter and other social media webspaces. It is here that a bridge must be crossed between the standards of success valued in traditional academic venues and those culturally practiced in social web settings.  Social web practices, repeated informally over and over in casual and participatory settings like social media sites, are again repeated when students engage in use of new media within an academic context.  It is my argument that I wish to outline here, and I think Losh might agree with this point, that online learning pedagogies in many of their incarnations do not pay close enough attention to deliberately re-training social web rhetorical practices students use outside of the classroom to properly fit the learning outcomes the courses seek to disseminate.

Social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, function as part of what Losh labels as the “attention economy.” Clicks, page views, shares and site visits represent a modern currency in which popularity, rather than physical or even digital money, functions as revenue.  Online posts and webtexts often are understood within these environments where popularity is typically considered the primary metric of success. “Likes” are desirable.  Comments are desirable.  Positive engagement is desirable.

Here, Losh asks a provocative and illuminating series of questions that inquire into the true, de-facto goals, targets and designs of the modern research university.  She targets recent online-fad videos, one in which a professor is clearly inebriated while performing a lecture and another in which a professor orates an emotion-laden narrative of his battle with cancer, which he eventually relates, a bit vaguely, to his academic field of human-computer interaction.  The professor drops to the floor and does push-ups onstage.  He spends half an hour describing his adventurous and non-traditional admission into Brown University.  He parades a photograph of himself posing with comedian William Shatner.

The implication is that neither lecture, whatever the demonstrated values and rhetorical techniques appearing in their accompanying online video, demonstrates effective knowledge conveyance that will meaningfully impact students’ lives.

Losh asks: “How will lecture videos that are entertaining be judged in comparison with those that are informational? How will those that use academic evidence be judged in comparison with those that contain stirring testimony and personal revelations from the faculty member’s own life?” (Losh 87).

Losh questions whether these viral videos, for as useful as they are for engaging the public and spreading optimism, engage in an appropriate level of engagement with scholarly practices of research, critical thinking, scientific demonstration, and analysis and representation of data. Collegiate lectures at an institution as distinguished as Carnegie Mellon become a spectacle of pathos and autobiographical achievement in these viral videos, which  Losh contends are “packaged with a string bow and commoditized as mass-market motivational reading.”

The trouble, when it comes to online distance-learning lecture videos, is that positive engagement becomes easier to achieve and more obvious for display (valuable to increasingly value-crunched institutions) when the delivered content is friendlier, easier to handle, accessible and uncomplicated, and laden with emotion.  There is often, and I would like to stress that this is in no way always the case, the expectation that blogs will have readers, that videos will have viewers and that posted material with have a demanding audience. Too often, likability equates to success for a video at the expense of demonstrated critical thinking.

A clash of values hovers into focus when values of attention and entertainment, measured quantitatively through clicks, “likes” and views, becomes the standard on how we judge an academic lecture.  Values of likability fostered on social media platforms designate sympathy, understanding and rapport for the posted content, but less often and less clearly demonstrate that critical thought, contemplation, contextualization and synthesis have been achieved by the viewer with the delivered material.  Yes, viewers may remember these vivid and theatrical lectures, but what exactly is it that they are remembering?  Is it the class material they remember, or is the optimism, the animation, the drama?

The aim for a successful college lecture is, to me, the transfer to students of specific and synthesized knowledge from a particular field through deliberate, targeted strategies designed to shape students into empowered disciplinary actors.

Institutions of higher education often strive for student recruitment and brand advertisement when posting online. This extends to the recorded college lecture, where a university image is presented by a talking head who seeks to grab the attention of potential students, cultural writers and members of the pubic.

Quality educational lectures are not mutually-exclusive with entertaining ones, but we must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap that they necessarily need to be one and the same.  The fear for me, and many others in higher education as well, is that the corporate drive of the modern research university to expand and proliferate resources will cause administrators to value attention-grabbing research initiatives rather than ones that are valuable for more traditional reasons.

MOOC platforms like Coursera also generally are judged by how popular they are rather than the quality of the education they provide, at least within popular circles.  In many cases in which success is measured by corporate and budget-justifying standards, it is quantitative analysis that takes the forefront rather than qualitative inquiry.

An interesting, newer practice is detailed in a recent article of The Chronicle of Higher Education in which two psychology professors at UT Austin conducted what they call the first SMOC, meaning synchronous massive online course.  The professors, Samuel D. Gosling and James W. Pennebaker, lecture with a camera in the room that livestreams their small-room sessions and class programming to a much-larger online audience. In any given class session, 20 or so students are present inside of the room while approximately 800 other class members tune in from dorm room desks, coffee shop couches and mobile phones, perhaps even at the airport on mobile devices while on their way home for the winter holidays.  The professors do not make use of a formal textbook, but rather rely upon selections from online sources such as Wikipedia, YouTube, TED and other websites from around the world.  They also do not give out standard knowledge-intake exams, but rather quiz using “benchmarks” at the beginning of each lecture.  They maintain a class Twitter account with its own hashtag to integrate students into a multimedia classroom experience that strives for learning from all angles.

The idea, for Gosling and Pennebaker, is that a smaller and more-personal class will improve the distance-learning experience and quality of received instruction for the hundreds viewing from outside the classroom as well as for the instructor teaching the course. It’s a step in the right direction, but how we re-train social web practices that have become internalized for our students within new medias for practice in the online classroom will go a long way towards facilitating a functioning, feasible and competitive learning environment within higher education as we know it today.

References:

Losh, Elizabeth.  “The War On Learning.”  The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.  2014. Print.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva.  “The Classroom as a Sacred Space- Siva Vaidhyanathan.” Web, 2010.http://fora.tv/2010/04/21/Siva_Vaidhyanathan_The_Classroom_Is_Sacred#fullprogram.

Mangan, Katherine.  “The Personal Lecture: How to Make Big Classes Feel Small.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Web, 4 December 2016.  http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Personal-Lecture/238559

Gosling, Samuel D. and James W. Pennebaker.  “Psychology 301: Introductory Psychology– Syllabus.” Web. https://facultyinnovate.utexas.edu/sites/default/files/psy301201642210.pdf

Dissenting Voice(s)

Here’s a small snippet of the final chapter of my MA thesis “Dissenting Voice(s),”  in which I look at social media, Anonymous/Wikileaks hacktivism and the implications of intensified blending of the personal and the political:

The human-tool interaction, in the case of social medias like YouTube, is one of publication, of announcement, of transmittal to some imagined public.  Procedures inherent in online social medias extend to the user a relationship affirmed through participation online—the affordance of a broadcastable voice, of listeners and responses, of discussion, conversation and reception. The assemblage invites collaboration, and steers collaborations toward contrast—specifically, political differences that become visibly apparent in seemingly-objective spaces like the standard social media interface.

Comparative Media Studies

I’d like to address the topic of Comparative Media Studies, a field N. Katherine Hayles introduces early in her 2012 book How We Think and that she revisits periodically throughout the progression of her arguments in the book.

Hayles draws on a variety of examples where Comparative Media Studies (CMS from here on) is integrated into a collegiate seminar, with varying outcomes and implications (8).  Hayles advocates CMS as a means understand and critique complex problems, as alternate strategies that, depending on circumstances, can provide new avenues for creativity, resourcefulness and ingenuity that we did not have access to with methods limited to print technologies.  If we are to accept this argument, we encounter a gap between scholars who readily engage new medias and those who hesitate to do so, or who do so in an ineffective manner.  Hayles asserts CMS as a bridge between traditional print-based scholarship fields (she references periodizations such as eighteenth century prose,   race and gender studies, post-colonial inquiries, etc) and new medias that may open up new realms of scholarship.  For example, I would argue the Assassin’s Creed franchise might occupy a similar cultural position as Robinson Crusoe in a certain lens, as fictions reflecting the values, assumptions and relations of a specific group of people. A project looking at post-colonial politics of a video game might benefit from screen recordings, sound clips, screenshots, interface examples, etc. similar to how presentations on 1920’s American culture might reference/include jazz recordings. Video scholarship is obviously a strong and growing type of criticism, but I don’t know if always carries the same institutional prestige as the published, peer-reviewed print essay.   We’re being irresponsible as scholars if we limit ourselves to the affordances of one medium, are we not?

An interdisciplinary approach affords the most flexibility, the fewest limitations and the most room for invention.  The merging of medias into a cohesive project follows the logic of Hayles’ call for a move from “content orientation of problem orientation,” more commonly found in the Digital Humanities.  She provides many benefits of this scholarship mode, such as increased collaboration, blending of skills and backgrounds, theory/practice convergences and, perhaps most convincingly, a simple plea for the “productive work of making.”  She carries these ideas forward with references to similar fields like platform studies, critical code studies, procedural rhetoric examinations and “cultural analysis” that draws insight from large datasets and databases (8).

I found ch.4 of Hayles’ to be the most stimulating, though I grew frustrated with the direction of the chapter, which introduced incredibly productive ideas (technical elements/individuals/ensembles, extended cognition, technological unconscious, neuroscience as it interacts with free-will, rewriting of neural pathways by media interfaces, the impact media saturation might have on a child’s mind…) but then generally oriented them toward an argument of temporalities, which was interesting but not exceedingly so.  She states:

“Nigel Thrift (2005) argues that contemporary technical infrastructures, especially networked and programmable machines, are catalyzing a shift in the technological unconscious, that is, the actions, expectations, and anticipations that have become so habitual they are “automatized,” sinking below conscious awareness while still being integrated into bodily routines carried on without conscious awareness” (96).

How has this changed the writing process? Hayles spends some time examining how the telegraph changed communication practices and even the concept of the human in the 19th century. Nietzsche famously commented on the impact the typewriter had on his writing, which had previously been limited to hand-writing. I’m wondering- how has the “backspace” option altered the print essay? What about flipping between web pages, the instant accessibility of data (Google searches). How do they impact an individual’s conception of language, an individual’s attention span, their working memory?  Hayles points to faster image processing and more complicated narrative structures as two possible outcomes, along with the hyper reading discussed in ch. 3, but there are surely more.  Let’s speculate- an increased desire to share (such as on social media platforms); a reconfiguration of relationship and companionship dynamics (instead of talking about a problem, posting about it on Facebook); an increased ability to juggle multiple information streams; an increased likelihood to instantly dismiss something without thinking about it (such as a pop-up ad); new objects of sentimentality (becoming attached to a Neopet or Pokemon); an increased exposure to foreign ideas.  How has memory, which Proust tells us is a deeply unconscious act, been changed by social media? What about memory as a rhetorical canon of persuasion, argumentation, communication? What about Google Earth, the interface Hayles mentions in ch. 6, altering our sense of place, space, even our sense of direction, size and our relationship to foreignness?

Birth Of The Authors

The following is the abstract to JD Richter’s MA Thesis, written at the University at Buffalo: “Birth of the Authors: Digital Collaboration, Electrate Invention and the Dissenting Voice.”

Abstract:

Rhetorical invention occurring in the sphere of the social web increasingly takes on the form of collaborators working in tandem with one another to compose and construct. Poststructural theorists traced notions of authorship through Platonic and modernist histories to contemporary, ecologically-informed conceptions that prove the Romantic myth of the solitary inventor acting in isolation to be a manufactured farce. Locating 21st century authorship between loci of Gregory Ulmer’s proposition of electracy as a successor to literacy and Roland Barthes’ conceptual Death of the Author, this thesis argues web invention to be an inherently collaborative exercise characterized by ecological, socially-conscious procedures and behaviors.

Web invention refuses to conform to the procedures of other mediums, developing its own distinct and unique practices. New technologies offer new avenues for cultural expression that detach themselves from traditional domains and instead take on new, unpredictable lives of their own. A practice of particular relevancy within electrate invention is moderation, an agreement between collaborators wherein the construction of more-desirable webtexts is achieved through community censorship, surveillance and content policing.

Similarly, social web spaces extend political action into realms of online sharing, liking, commenting, remixing, and profile representation. Collaboratively-authored webtexts express ideological values across multi-layered procedures, practices and behaviors, all the while conditioning users to contribute content, emotions and reactions that are politically and socially charged.

As interactions typical of the social web demonstrate, the assemblage forged between humans and nonhuman tools makes collaboration essential for the construction of webtexts, altering rhetorical invention and imposing a newfound emphasis on social ecologies within the invention process.

Novel Excerpt- March 2017

I’ve been reluctant to share anything from my current novel-project-in-progress on this blog, but I don’t see the following simple paragraphs making many waves since, you know, we don’t meet any actual characters. To be frank– the novel explores small towns. It asks questions. It ventures answers.  It plays with groups of people who aren’t quite as simple-minded as we sometimes make them out to be. -JD

Fathers in Winthrop wander aimlessly through the hallways of the high school assemblies in brick buildings their sons and daughters brave to venture into each day. Children: knitted sweaters and faded khakis. But not together. Pleated jeans and wrinkled shirts for the less well-off children.  No irons at home, or no one to iron. No ironing boards anywhere in that two-story duplex. Not a single red mark on anyone’s pointer finger from carelessness while ironing.  No overwhelmingly flat facets of cotton polyester fabric interrupted by long, scarring schismatic fissures where the bed’s mattress interrupted the smooth flow of the electrically-charged steel .  No apple-sized bruises from tripping over plastic cords.

Who gives a damn about ironing?

Lots of people. 

?

Fathers: unbuttoned white dress shirts, tie undone, sleeves rolled up; sweaty undershirts.  Some wearing work boots and a loose-fitting flannel shirt, safety glasses in their pockets.  Some in loafers, dreaming of women, the coming weekend, of soft bathrobes on their loins.

Mothers: cell phones in their hands, a new online story to share.  Take a picture- look happy, smile!, play it off as something it might not always be. Make it a story. Get creative with it. Reality? Likes? Who likes it? Who will like-like it? How many? Comments? Will they like?  Some fathers too, the ones with dark glasses, buttoned shirts loosened nonchalantly at 5:08 each night in the end-space of the parking lot, striped neckties thrown over their Toyota Corolla’s passenger seat, argyle sweaters if snow is on the ground folded neatly in the fabric of the backseat adjacent to the McDonalds bag and the cluster of fur left by a dog seven weekends prior.

Happy?

And it is the happy who are dangerous, because in their jubilance they forget their happiness comes at a price that is not paid by them.   But the citizens of Winthrop generally are not the happiest, or make themselves happy in the humblest of ways, like by reminding themselves each night how enjoyable it was to sit on the front porch, or by repeating the same lines over and over about how great their family dinners were, or about the simple beauty of waking up early and going to sleep in the same bed each night.

And working a respectable job with respectable hours, respectable attitudes.

Not rocking the boat. Calm, steady growth. Not for them but for others, but they never thought of it in that way.  Did they?  Was it beaten out of them by monotony, like waves against an abandoned, torn-down statue whose layers recede each year from the sea salt’s abrasiveness until it’s nothing more than a blank, marble slab?

Honesty?

Ambedo (A Chapter from A Novel Written Long Ago…)

Ambedo

JD Richter

To be successful in Millennial America without sacrificing soul and artistry—that

was the goal, the tightrope to be walked in a concrete land of parking garages and traffic

lights, where everything is bought and sold, where a person’s selfhood is bartered for

attention and defined to the outside world as a collection of square images on Instagram

or 140-character ironic wry doubletalk, and of course the definition of the self from the

outside seeps into the definition of the self on the inside, the puddle spills over onto the

grass, the locusts invade the green field, the emoji invades the printed word.

The 21 st century is a place where the person you could be and should be resonates

everywhere from cereal boxes and television commercials to the traditional places such

as your parents and your teachers, where sex appeal determines where you go and what

you think you can get, a land of planes buzzing across the cloudy sky, of voicemails and

friend requests, of waiting in traffic across the Verrazano Bridge at 1a.m. on a Tuesday.

It’s a world where a cash dollar amount is put on funerals, communication,

hospital care, information like the weather, product sales records, where the government

watches what you’re doing and knows your credit card history, where corporations buy

the history of your habits and where eleven year-old girls turn to Twitter campaigns to

pay for chemotherapy—to be successful in America without sacrificing soul and artistry,

that was the thought pattern that dominated each day for me, the struggle of finding the

middle ground, of not selling myself short of all the things I wanted, of the things I knew

I’d always want, of reaching outward and grasping reality between the spaces of my

fingers and consciously shaping it into an image I felt compelled to choose.

I am flesh—I am cohesion, I am entropy, I am a grace of human bone and tissue

fiber.

My junior year of undergrad came and went in a flurry of motion; it was a year of

transition, a year of reading and a year of anxiety, of constant additions and revisions of

the to-do lists I made for myself in an effort to get everything accomplished on time in a

way that was acceptable to others and the empty filler that is so much of the college

experience.   No longer was I an underclassman free to do as I please, my unoccupied

time entirely my own. Responsibilities tugged at every breath I took, my true intellectual

life a crestfallen Prometheus, the fire I contributed banality.

I got a job as a Resident Assistant, became vice-president of my school’s writing

club. I took five classes each semester, worked two undergraduate majors, wrote for my

school’s newspaper, published stories and poetry in every campus publication, served as

vice-president of my school’s English honor society and woke up each morning with

tremendous expectations to fill each day with accomplishment, to add another bullet to

the list, another line to the resume, to check off another box, to write just one more word,

one more paper, one more A.

I was trying to justify existence.

 

Ambedo—I gnaw, I weather away.

 

I’d been to New York City just once in my life, a two-day trip leaving my rural

country town in the Finger Lakes with my father and sisters that no one particularly

enjoyed.  The city wasn’t our place, it wasn’t where any of us belonged, it wasn’t where

the things that mattered to us happened. It was a place on a map with exotic food and

noise and pollution, a tourist destination, and I don’t think anyone in my family ever

thought of the city as a place of habitation where people lived, worked and died, but

rather of a land of lights, continual motion and glamor that we’d see on television but

never in our actual reality, never breathing in front of us. It was a lifestyle foreign from

our own—urban and suburban Americas can be so different.

We were tourists. We spoke different Englishes. I took a small bite from a Big

Apple and tasted sourness and shock.

For whatever reason, New York has a way of inspiring humans that no other city

can duplicate. Maybe it’s the buildings, maybe it’s the voices you hear, maybe it’s just

the way it’s marketed. There were open slots for a Senior Seminar class trip to

Manhattan. I wasn’t taking the class, but some friends were able to secure me a seat.

That morning I left my dorm room on the 3 rd floor of Casey Tower by 6:45, the

sun just nipping its head over the trees as I exited the stairwell into the open spring air for

the walk up campus to be picked up. The red State University of New York van was

gassed up and parked in the lot when I arrived.

“Good to see you this morning,” Dr. Clarke greeted me, a kind smile on his face.

He was in his 50’s with curly gray hair and an intelligent Tennessee accent and taught

Rhetoric.

“Good morning, Dr. Clarke.”

“I’m glad to see you’ve packed light.”

He took my backpack with everything I’d need for the weekend and set it in the

trunk. I stepped to the side of the van and peered in. Fifteen or so tired faces clutching

their phones and earbuds, elbows resting on the windows.

I crawled to the only open seat in the very back of the van. I’m a tall guy, and as I

made my way to the back I got to know just about everyone with my knees and my

elbows. I sat down in between my friend Mark and a girl I didn’t know. She had dark

hair and pretty green eyes that hovered over a big book. The trademark double

bookmarks gave it away to be Infinite Jest.

“Hi, I’m Jake,” I said as I reached for my seatbelt, knowing we’d be sitting next

to each other for the long car ride.

She looked up from the book toward the head of the van.

“Anne,” she said, and looked back down. I don’t know if she looked up again for

the entirety of the five hour journey.

By the time we stopped for the bathroom at a New Jersey McDonalds three hours

later, the entire 15-person caravan felt friendly with each other—shared suffering will do

that. We enjoyed our first day touring the city, visited Greenwich Village, set up shop at

the Vanderbilt YMCA, got dinner at a small restaurant on 37 th street and dozed off for our

big Saturday, where after breakfast we were to have free time.

As I unfurled my sleeping bag on the top bunk of our cot my phone’s screen lit

up.

“When will you be back? I can’t edit all these papers by myself,” my friend Nicole

had texted. She was the president of the magazine I edited.

“I’m on a trip until Sunday,” I wrote back.

“Could we do it online? I’ll make a google doc.”

I turned my phone off and went to sleep.

I stood looking up in awe of a tall building with a poster of Batman sprawled

down the side. I held back the urge to take a picture.

“Let’s keep moving,” Annie said.

Mark and I trailed behind her, Google Maps apps open on our phones.

“She’s from Brooklyn. She knows her way around New York,” he said to me.

We crossed a few blocks and eventually great white steps emerged as we rounded

a corner. We followed Annie through the great doors and through the turnstile.

She turned around when we’d reached a table where two women in dresses sat

with a basket on the table in front of them.

“There’s an encouraged $1 donation to enter,” she said.

She put her dollar in the basket, smiled at the women as she walked past them and

was through a doorway into another room before Mark and I had even pulled out our

wallets.

“She’s not super friendly, is she?” I asked Mark.

“She’s a really nice person when you get to know her, actually.”

“Oh yeah?”

He took off his hat put his sunglasses in his pocket.

“She’s just very… different.”

“That isn’t very specific,” I laughed.

“No, man, like… for example, in class one day we were asked why we write, and

we had to share what we wrote down.”

“I feel like that’s pretty standard for writing majors.”

“She said she wrote to understand all that it is time does to us.”

“Interesting.”

The question confused me. My answers were chaotic and disordered. Why did I

write?

To explore what it is time does to us. Interesting.

Like an origami swan, sometimes the world of our perceptions unfolds itself in

front of you, some great connection is made, suddenly the words on the inside of the

swan’s white paper become open for translation.

I knew no word at the time to describe the transcendence that emanated through

me while walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time, 19 years

old, with the freedom, time and mind to not only analyze but really to feel van Goh, to

look Mark in the eyes and tell him this Picasso was not impressing me, to look at a Greek

sculpture of Dionysus and say yes, that’s how I felt once, too, that’s how it really is for

us.  Mark and I spent hours pouring over Cézanne; he surveyed every room of paintings

while I wandered to the historical exhibits, observing 2 nd century Mesopotamian limestone

carvings Door lintel with lion-griffins and vase with lotus leaf, admiring Yup’ik dance

masks from Alaska, viewing what may be the first and oldest piano in existence, built by

Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence in 1720.

The pillars of the museum reached up to the high copper-tinged ceilings, marble

towers cold and smooth against my hands, solid like a Greek Cyclops and tall like the

Parthenon. The floors were composed of a beautiful, glassy marble, a delicate and fine

amberish color, the tiles square with stone benches that had dark green plants jutting out

from them, real plants that filtered the air to be fresh as you breathed in, so clean and

complementing to the glass ceiling, the light in every room natural, real, and all of this

with finely-wrought iron chandeliers hanging downward from the blue-glass sky, a

trillion light-saturated panes of glass visible in the tall buildings seen through the skylight

windows glittering like scales from a score of snakes wound together on a flat plane.

All of this was reality.

The halls held flags from every country, sigils from medieval French familial

houses, a trio of jousting sword-armed armored knights stop-motion cantering on their

steel-plated horses, all the armor polished and clean, not a speck of rust anywhere, the

gray faceless expressions on the mannequins underneath the steel hardly rendering the

detailed armor lame. Even the chainmail underneath, visible only on close inspection,

was expertly crafted. I’d tried my hand with chainmail in a high school art class and

could feel with my own fingers the hours of handiwork the maker had put into these

weapons of death and defense.

I looked around to see Mark in an adjacent room gazing at armor quite unlike

what I was staring at. His armor was that of a samurai, light, steel plates with hard

leather underneath, flexible with what I thought to be bamboo forming a skirt-like bottom

with long thigh-high boots hanging down. The gold headdress to the armor was a long,

thin dragon, his face roaring with rage, flames spouting from his nose like fiery whisps of

rainbows, flames composed of other little dragons.

We were consumed, spellbound, engaged with the openness of expression in

those hundred rooms.  We sat on a bench breathing in Antoine Watteau’s Head of Man,

trying to decide if the man depicted was dead or alive, where he came from, when in my

life I had been that man, where he’d gone, what he’d seen, what his scars were from, why

his muscles were clenched, why his lips were so; he reminded me of a sawed-off tree, its

rings visible; I could almost smell sawdust emanating from him in my nostrils as I

adjusted my green flannel, tied my leather shoes, ran my fingers through my hair or

touched the stubble on my chin.  Red and black chalk, I thought, just red and black chalk.

How could it mean something? It meant something.

“Do you think Monet intentionally made his lily pads look like reflections of the

branches above them?” I asked Mark as we stood gazing at Bridge over a Pond of Water

Lillies.

“It’s more complicated than that,” he said. “The branches look like a reflection as

well.” As he adjusted his hoodless sweatshirt—the museum air fresh and open, the

natural light coming in clear and unmolested from the sunny day outside, the vast sprawl

of chattering voices buzzing through the open windows from the hum of activity

channeled from the outside—I thought back to something I’d read years ago, surfing

Wikipedia as a seventh or eighth grader.

“I read somewhere that Van Goh was inspired by Japanese art, their porcelain and

woodcut prints,” I said.

“Maybe Van Goh was trying to copy their ritual suicides when he cut off his ear.”

“I love impressionism,” I told him. “It’s a journal entry describing a single

moment in time.”

“They do the best at capturing the soul of place. But I don’t like how they do

people.”

“No, that’s not impressionism. That’s Rembrandt.”

“I don’t know him,” Mark said.

I was thinking of Annie’s words.

That’s what I thought about as I sat on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of

Art, the steps of the center of Western cultural conversation in the world’s greatest city.

I thought of the human nakedness on display, I thought of the poems I’d written in

the past and how hard I’d tried to make them work, about how the only museum they’d

end up in was the Sophomore Creative Work: 2013 folder on my Macbook, itself hidden

away in Undergraduate Creative Years; I thought about New Constellations, the only

story I’d written I’d ever felt proud of; I thought of the journal I’d recently began

keeping. I thought of humanness, of the wrinkles on my hands. I thought of the

vulnerability I would be exposing myself to— but I was ready to make that choice.

There was something here worth pursuing, something in these hundred rooms with

which to say “this thing is good—I will give my living to see it live.”  I believed we were

here to risk everything in our hearts and heads. I was readying myself to enter the

world’s conversation.

Ambedo is a Latin word translated as either I gnaw or I weather away, neither of

which seems appealing at first, but therein is where the appeal lies, the bones of it

all—like a mother fox studying mice to feed to her pups, in that profoundly stoic moment

there is a boundless and ethereal world unfolding within our grasp, the mundane rendered

transmundane, the monumental sprawl of conversation invading the windows of the Met

from the 5 th avenue crowd humming with the vibrancy of Elysian Fields, rumbling with

elation, the intoxication of the human mind on apparent and genuine display.

Ambedo—the momentary trance in which you’re absorbed in sensory

details—the Asian woman leafing through books, the girl sketching Head of Man in her

sketchbook, the aging couple sharing a newspaper, the dreadlocked man singing for Eric

Garner on the sidewalk petting his cat. It was the dance of human motivation. I filled my

iPhone with notes.

I gnaw, I weather away. Writing made me a part of the world—my words meant

something, a vessel of tendons longing for cohesion and grace.

Across from the steps to the Met were street vendors selling fried rices, teriyaki

chickens, barbequed brisket, simmering chili hot like a palmed stovetop, dishes of

steaming oysters, an onslaught of odors wafting across the way. On the steps where I sat

a young woman sat down with a burka around her head and followed the grid of the

streets looking east. A man sat in a chair at a table saying something about “Now is the

time! Now is the time!” A white-haired, bespeckled old man in boots and suspenders sat

a few steps below, stretching his legs and arms out and turning his head as people walked

by. The four of us sat there, lost in perceptions, penetrating the voices as they passed by.

If we could turn back time, could we learn to live right? Time is irreversible,

every second irrevocable, the components of a moment unfathomable as the years.

The writer explores everything it is time does to us. Somehow I thought there’d

be more of a narrative arc, I typed into my phone.

I quit the Notes application and opened up Chrome.

How to navigate nyc subway, I searched.

Writing Matters

In a few weeks, I’ll be presenting at a writing classroom and pedagogy conference called Writing Matters.  This year’s theme is “The Work Of Writing,” and will feature panels and presentations from a variety of K-16 teachers.

This semester, I’ve been teaching my Freshman composition courses at SUNY Cortland through a blog, which we utilize in the classroom for notes, assignments and links, as well as outside of it for homework writing assignments, commenting on the work of others and viewing strategic classroom content in a central location.  The experience, on the whole, has been a success- students are writing, talking about writing, and learning through writing.

Here’s the abstract for my presentation:

The Connected Classroom: Writing, Blogs and Student Collaboration

JD Richter

The writing classroom has evolved quickly enough over the past few decades that the introduction of digital technologies no longer maintains the aura of novelty that it perhaps once did.  Inside and outside of the classroom, students are writing in modes that increasingly situate them at the keyboard: emails, YouTube comments, instant messages, Tweets, status updates, Blackboard submissions, and even the writing of computer code are all legitimate forms of writing our students might be familiar with. Similarly, students compose and contribute to “webtexts” in unfamiliar and under-explored ways: through the sharing of links, “pinning” on Pinterest, liking, subscribing, following, upvoting, moderating, even contributing to Wikipedia. Online knowledge communities, while possibly the most-impactful single site of public human-to-human communication at the present time, have yet to be fully understood and utilized in most writing classrooms.

Blogging platforms allow a community of writers to contribute in a centralized location within teacher-set boundaries.  Here, students can post their writing, comment on the writing of others, engage in discussions, link to outside content, and read over the work of their peers.  Blogs allow students to write for new audiences, rather than engaging only with an “audience of one” in their teacher.  Students write and respond to one another, to “guest posters,” to articles and videos they might share, record and strategically examine.  Class notes are available to students and privileged viewers at all times, as are posted assignments, schedules, itineraries and other documents.  Utilizing editing features, students are able to go back and re-visit their work to correct for errors, suggestions, and criticisms, learning to write in a project-based process.  

How might writing teachers utilize and augment the digital literacies their students are developing?  How valuable for 21st century students is the ability to work, collaborate and write seriously and academically in an online setting?  Should media literacy occupy a core place in curricula and classroom learning outcomes? What might be gained, lost or changed?

Participants in this session work in real-time to contribute to a sample “session blog,” a WordPress site set up specifically for this individual session.  Small bits of writing and reflection submitted by session members demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of running the writing classroom through an online blog.  We’ll examine how classrooms can utilize traditional “overhead notes” as a visual aid, in this case integrating hyperlinks, video files, sounds, animations, Prezi links, etc. into a web document students can view at home, comment on, even connect to their LinkedIn profiles.  Depending on computer and smartphone availability, we’ll work to compose a paragraph together in a Google Doc linked to a page on the sample blog, as well as to edit a student paragraph in a similar manner.

We’ll also look at the downfalls of blogging in the classroom, and discuss the constraints and dangers this software might place on classroom conversation and functioning.  Lastly, we’ll examine the ways in which we talk to our students about this mode of writing: the types and genres of content they should be posting, the system of teacher moderation content undergoes, the goals, habits and learning outcomes the blog is meant to encourage and achieve.  

What are the advantages and disadvantages to equipping our students with software tools allowing them to write in “virtual classrooms” from their home computers, from the car backseat on an iPad, from the schoolbus on a smartphone?